African Moment: A visitor comes calling in South Africa
This Easter, you can keep your bunnies, white doves and lambs. I’ll be dreaming bigger.
I’ll be dreaming of elephants.
The world’s largest landed animal may appear to be an odd choice as an Easter symbol. But China’s announcement this year that it is ending the world’s largest Ivory trade could, in fact, lead to a rebirth – a resurrection, if you will – of one God’s most remarkable creatures.
At the very least, it could cut significantly into poaching’s all-out war that claims more than 30,000 elephants in Africa and Asia every year, and threatens to exterminate the species within a precious few generations.
That point was driven home by an South African trip a group of Charlotte-area friends took in the fall. The highlight for all of us was four days of safaris in a private game preserve, east of Johannesburg.
There were wildlife star turns aplenty: a pair of twin male lions that ran the place with the swagger of mob bosses; a rare black rhino who couldn’t quite decide whether to finish his dinner or charge our truck.
We came across the vast preserve’s only cheetah and watched him bolt with pneumatic speed after a springbok. We saw a baby giraffe, a baby hippo, baby elephants, too – all of them so young that they were still getting used to their remarkable bodies, experiencing in stops, stumbles and starts the exhilaration of being wild and free – even if they do live within protective fences.
Are they safe? In these days and times, safety is, at best, relative. In Africa, it was daunting to come across villagers patrolling the fence line with semi-automatic weapons who’ve been hired to keep their neighbors from killing the animals, and being asked not to post photos of the black rhino because poachers track them on Facebook, and the windfall from one horn can feed a village family for years.
Which brings us back to the elephants. Their size make them easy targets. Their demeanor, well that’s something else altogether.
“I don't know how many lions and leopards I've shot,” South African writer Wilbur Smith once said. “I’ve shot two elephants, which was enough – never again. It’s a melancholy and moving thing to hunt an elephant. It’s like shooting an old man.”
Elephants, even the young ones, project an air of having seen more of life than the rest of us. They also display some of the best of all human traits. Their sense of family is extraordinary. Once during the trip, I watched a herd slowly make its way up and out of a small canyon – that is, until a 2-week-old calf let out a cry. All at once the adults thunderously retraced their steps, forming a wall around the infant so impenetrable that it was beyond even our president’s wildest dreams.
The breed also displays the best of all thoughtful inclinations – curiosity, a genuine interest in those different than themselves. What has happened to the rest of us?
On one of our first safaris, we watched a big lone male with asymmetrical tusks graze his way down a long hillside. Unknown to me at the time, my wife Jennifer and Charlotte friend Brenda Sorkin were sending silent invitations the elephant’s way to come even closer.
All at once, the elephant turned his gaze our way, then thumped quickly through the bush toward our open-air truck, moving so quickly that our guide started the engine and created a safe gap. The elephant stopped for a few seconds at our rebuff. But then the guide cut the motor. The elephant came a few steps closer. He was now no more than 15 yards away now, watching, always watching, so close that when he picked up pebbles with his trunk and tossed them in the air, we could hear the clatter when they hit the ground.
When the elephant decided an introduction was in order, he gave a snort and came forward. The spray from his trunk literally fogged glasses. Now his right eye was only a few feet away from my camera. “Stay calm, guys,” our guide said. There was not enough air in our lungs to fuel panic. He was big enough to easily turn over the truck, but humans and elephant just stared.
On Good Friday, I took a walk uptown over my lunch hour. Just south of The Square, a familiar street corner preacher rode his bike south on Tryon. “Good news, guys,” he bellowed, left hand guiding the bike as he thrust his right arm skyward. “Jesus saves. Jesus saves.” He approached and looked me in the eye as I stood at Third Street. “He loves you, man,” he said as he coasted by.
It was a comforting message of the season, and we all should welcome any help we can get.
But I was still thinking of one elephant in Africa. On this Easter, it would be good news, indeed, if Jesus saves him, too.